Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 2

(Click here for Part 1)

Karamoja - big sky and mountain

Kaabong plains with the Rift Valley escarpment in the background

Kamion is the most remote spot of land in the most remote district in all of Uganda.  The installation team had continued there the day before, riding in David’s little Corolla and a medium-sized dump truck that was carrying our stock, while I stayed behind in Kotido one more day to finish signing warranty contracts.  From Kotido to Kaabong is a minimum 2 hours drive, and it’s another 1 1/2 hours on a bad road to Kamion, which is little more than few clusters of huts scattered across valleys or perched atop ridges like thatch-roofed crowns.

It’s far, and it’s beautiful.  Kamion borders the Great Rift Valley, where the African Plate is slowly rending itself apart.  As the plate pulls apart and breaks in two, the valley’s floor is slowly sinking into the earth’s molten mantle while the valley itself grows wider, until one day millions of years from now it will be filled by the sea.  Until then, it’s a hell of a sight.  Your 15 hour drive is rewarded by a magnificent view from the top of the escarpment that lines the sinking earth: the golden plains of the valley floor bounded by sudden cliffs that stretch as far as the eye can see, dotted by huts and ponds and acacia trees standing sentinel atop the high ridges, the trees’ outlines silhouetted individually against the gold-blue sky.

But I had to get there first.

Sunset in Kaabong

Sunset in Kaabong

The view from Idi Amin's former house in Kidepo valley is a lot like looking over the Rift Valley at Kamion

The view from Idi Amin’s former house in Kidepo valley is a lot like looking over the Rift Valley at Kamion

Otherworldly moonrise over Kidepo

Otherworldly moonrise over Kidepo.  Unfortunately none of the pictures I took in Kamion made it back, but this should give you the picture

Even More Kidepo Valley

Even More Kidepo Valley

More Kidepo Valley

More Kidepo Valley

Karamoja looks a lot like New Mexico

Karamoja looks a lot like New Mexico

Karmojong houses

Karmojong houses

The next morning I left Kotido at around 10am, drove straight through Kaabong town, and took the road to Kamion.  On seeing the road, I have no idea how the installation team’s tiny Corolla and heavy dump truck had passed the day before.  70% of the road is decent, but after a while the road gives way to boulders that erupt out of the dirt like a giant tortoise trying to emerge from below the earth, making an already steep climb almost impassable and sometimes feeling like the Super Custom was going to tip over.  At other points mud and water fill the low spots in the road, forcing you to drive off the road through the grass to avoid getting mired in the deep stuff.  The journey is only about 45 km (27 miles), but it takes nearly two hours.

The good news was that the team had almost finished the work – their pace was improving!  If they kept it up we might even be able to leave a day early.

Then I noticed David’s car.  It was up on a jack, the front left tire removed.  He’d gotten a flat along the way, punctured by one of the sharp stones that littered the road; so the team hadn’t gotten there trouble-free after all.  David only laughed, as if to say he’d been there, done that, and fully expected it.

Then he pointed at my tire.  It was in even worse shape, flattening at a visible pace.  Wouldn’t you know it, BOTH cars had gotten flats.  And we were nearly two hours on a bad road from the nearest town that even MIGHT have spares.

Fortunately I had bought a jack before leaving Kampala, and the Super Custom had a spare tire.

Unfortunately the jack I’d bought was for the RAV4: it was not tall enough for the Super Custom, which had no jack.  Even worse, upon inspecting the spare tire, we found it had no air in it.  And the toolset in the Super Custom lacked the proper wrench for even removing the spare tire.

That’s where having a skilled technician in your party comes in handy.  David had come with everything: a proper jack, a pump, a full toolset that included the wrench we needed, and a spare jack in case his broke.  Again, he’d been here before.

Actually I'd been there before, and trucks get stuck often - like our truck on the way to Kidepo

Actually I’d been there before, and trucks get stuck often – like our truck on the way to Kidepo in 2012

Or this tanker, also on its way to Kidepo

Or this tanker, also on its way to Kidepo

So after finishing the solar installations, we replaced my tire, pumped David’s tire up enough to make it back to Kaabong town and patch it, hiked up to the escarpment to take in the view, and left for Kaabong town.  Amazingly David’s car made better time on that road than our 4WD Super Custom – after 5 minutes of driving he had left us behind.  His good time didn’t last, though: after an hour we caught up with him—his tire was off again.  Yes, he’d gotten ANOTHER flat, this one beyond repair: the puncture was the size of a passionfruit.  He had no choice but to put on the spare and drive the rest of the way on that small tire.

Two cars, one road, three flat tires.  That’s Kaabong for you.

I should add that we were also carrying a Karamojong woman and her sick child from Kamion to Kaabong town to receive treatment at Kaabong hospital.  Jolly squeezed himself below some trunkings to make room for the sick child, sacrificing his own comfort for the child’s sake.

When someone says “I don’t have transport,” it usually means they don’t want to pay for transport.  But in Kamion there is, literally, no transportation: no matatus, no boda bodas, nothing.  Even if you had the money, there would be no transportation to spend it on.  The only way to town is therefore hitching a ride.  You know you live in a remote place when Kaabong hospital is the GOOD hospital you are desperate to get to.

But eventually we did get there, equipment, installers, sick child, and all.  Now the problem in Karamoja is that there is no food at night, and we did not reach town until after 8pm.  Most restaurants can’t use refrigerators to preserve food, there being no electricity in town, and there is not enough business to justify stocking fresh food: if customers don’t come, you lose the food.  So restaurants buy enough to last until 7pm or so, and when it’s done, it’s done.

As a result, we spent 45 minutes going to three different restaurants amassing enough leftovers to feed six hungry workers.  And it was still not enough.  The restaurant we finally found that claimed to have food for six brought out only three plates in the end.  They’d just run out.

The next day, still hungry, the team went to work on the second-to-last school, Komukuny, while I drove around getting warranty contracts signed.  I also found a guy in town who repaired one of the tires.

But we weren’t done with the repairs until 4pm, and the spare tire was still iffy: too risky to travel on those roads.  So I was forced to stay behind.

If only I had been able to travel, disaster might have been avoided.

Progress on Komukuny was moving quickly.  I had joined the work on Monday since I’d had to stay behind anyway, and though I was less skilled than the others, it still helped.  By 4pm, a school that might have taken 2 1/2 days to finish looked like we might even finish by 5pm.  Half the team had already gone to Pajar, the last school, to start the work.  If all went well, we’d be able to leave the next afternoon!  After two weeks with nothing but pasted meat and the occasional egg for dinner, everyone was ready.

Then around 4pm we noticed one solar panel frame had accidentally been sent over to Pajar with the other two installers.  “I need to go pick this part from Pajar,” Jolly informed me.  I was busy instructing the school staff on how to operate the solar systems, so I gave him the keys to the Super Custom and he drove off.  No big deal; these schools were just on the outskirts of town, a 4km drive from each other.  No need to travel for hours on bad roads to reach them.  He ought to be back in 30 minutes.

30 minutes later I received a call.  “I heard there was an accident.”

Continue to Part 3 >>

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One response to this post.

  1. […] How Rwanda Almost Made Me a Republican (And Why It Didn’t) Disaster on Kaabong Highway, Part 2 […]

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